When it comes to fashion, it does not get any bigger than Helena Christensen. Since her breakthrough as a household name in the 1990s, the Danish supermodel has worked with the biggest names in the industry. She’s graced the front cover of Vogue and starred in one of the most captivating music videos of all time. In 1999, Christensen took it one step further, co-founding NYLON magazine and then stepping behind the lens as a photographer. Today she is also an entrepreneur, running the fashion brand Stærk&Christensen with her business partner, Camilla Stærk. What’s the secret at the core of Helena Christensen’s continuing successes? According to her, her achievements in the industry are fundamentally rooted in her ability to follow her instinct.
“I started modeling as a way to take photographs and ended up being educated by some of the most legendary photographers,” Christensen explains. “One thing led to another in my career, everything seems to happen serendipitously. I choose from my heart and belly, whatever feels right is the path I go towards.”
Recently, Christensen’s career has followed a renewed trajectory, as the fashion icon has sought out and devoted herself to charitable causes, combatting breast cancer and raising awareness for the environment, sustainability, and climate issues — all areas which she traces back to her Danish background. In sum, to say Helena Christensen has a versatile repertoire is a gross understatement.
To dive deeper into what makes Helena Christensen tick, Denmark in New York reached out to her to hear what inspires her, her impressions of being a Dane in New York, and her new chapter advocating for sustainability and the environment.
Denmark In New York: You are a long-time New York resident, splitting your time between the city and your lovely home in the Catskills. But while New York has certainly left its imprint on you, is there something about your lifestyle, way of thinking, and approach to living that you would say is specifically Danish?
Helena Christensen: I live in the West Village on purpose because it is the part of the city that most reminds me of the neighbourhood mentality of Copenhagen. I enjoy buying local from small stores where you know each other and have cosy conversations. My homes are all about that cosy Danish environment. I think Danes are very inspired by history and we like to feel close to nature. The way I live is very inspired by that. Most of what I own is antique or vintage and I bring nature into my space in the form of wood, rocks, shells, plants and flowers. I feel we have a very natural and organic approach to life and way of thinking and I feel very Danish at heart even though I live in New York.
Your career has had a fascinating array of iterations: from model to photographer; fashion designer to activist. What is the driving force that inspires you to take on new challenges?
Helena Christensen: I actually started out as a photographer but not many people know that. I started modeling as a way to take photographs and ended up being educated by some of the most legendary photographers. One thing led to another in my career, everything seems to happen serendipitously.
I choose from my heart and belly, whatever feels right is the path I go towards. There are so many interconnected areas in this business and I almost feel that my modeling and photography careers have been one long education opening up doors to other opportunities.
Much has changed in the fashion world since the 1990s when you dominated catwalks and magazine covers as one of the world’s leading supermodels. What concerns you about the way the fashion, media and creative industries work today and how they engage with talent and audiences?
Helena Christensen: Let’s put it this way: I am just so grateful I didn’t have to deal with social media for all that time. Besides that I don’t really feel a big difference to be honest, everything seems to go in circles and I have certainly seen changes come and then go back to how it used to be.
In March 2020, New York found itself at the global epicentre of the COVID-19 crisis. Today, it continues to recover from the wrought by the pandemic. How has the crisis affected your daily life in the city? And how do you see the city going forward?
Helena Christensen: I kind of live more or less the same way I always have. I am not a big socializer and enjoy my upstate trips. In a way, this period has given me all that I love in my life back to me, my son having stayed with me 5 months and nature right at my door. I have been cooking, reading, photographing and been very creative, all things I enjoy doing. But it pains me to see the beautiful energetic vibe being sucked out of the city, even though there are areas that seem to be holding up, even blooming, most of the city is shut down and so many places have had to close which is immensely sad. I don’t feel they get enough financial support from the city which I think is a big mistake because New York will never be the same without the energy bustling around.
You have also worked extensively with Oxfam as an environmental activist documenting the impact of climate change on indigenous populations. How have your first-hand experiences in this area informed your activism?
Helena Christensen: It’s disheartening to see the effects climate change has around the world, mostly in third world countries. I certainly have felt it was hopeless in some moments. But we cannot give up and every single one of us are responsible for what happens to our planet. We all leave a footprint and we have to make a huge effort keeping it as low as possible. I think growing up in Denmark has taught me a lot about being environmentally ethical and recycling in all areas of our lives.
You recently teamed up with the non-profit No More Plastic to tackle single-use plastic usage here in New York City. Tell us a little bit about what prompted this partnership and what sustainable living means to you.
Helena Christensen: I have always been picking up garbage anywhere I am, from streets, beaches, nature. I get so deeply angry and frustrated over how much waste there is around and how disrespectfully some people treat the planet.
Most of the garbage is plastic and we all know how plastic will never disappear and therefore is one of the most dangerous materials around for nature and animals. It is imperative that we take a different approach towards our immense plastic use. I teamed up with No More Plastic and Yatay to design shoes that are free of plastic. It is a beginning in terms of changing what products we buy and hopefully it will inspire bigger companies to follow suit.
What does the future hold in store for Helena Christensen: any exciting projects you’d like to share with us?
Helena Christensen: I’m just trying to stay as creative as possible and always being inspired by nature and the cities I love so much, Copenhagen and New York. I am working on a beautiful collection of rugs and plaid with our Stærk&Christensen company and on handmade teas with a friend via our themissesny project. It’s always about keeping nature close to my heart and staying curious about everything in life.
Frederik Tronier Kapper is the Strategic Communications and Press trainee at Denmark In New York.